“China and the UK should foster a sensible strategic understanding of each other. China is not a challenge, threat or rival. The UK side should come to the right conclusion on this issue.” These were the words of Zheng Zeguang, Chinese Ambassador to the UK, speaking at the Centenary celebration of the CCP in July of this year (Chinese Embassy, 2021). At the same time, the UK Government is well-underway in executing upon its 10-point environmental plan, (HM Government, 2021) whilst the CCP has included 5 points directly related to ‘Green Ecology’ in their 14th Five-Year Plan, thus providing ample opportunity for both nations to act upon the words of Zheng Zeguang. Equally, now that the UK has stepped away from the EU and has increased opportunity to “go on the offensive with trade deals”, in the words of Elizabeth Truss, the Secretary of State for International Trade,the question is no longer who the UK will trade with, but rather how environmental policy will be baked into these trade deals (Ashworth, 2021). Of the significant events which relate to this proposition, the first is COP26.
In early November, alongside Italy, the UK will co-host COP26, a forum designated as “the most significant climate summit since 2015’s Paris COP21”, (Climate Coalition, 2021) during which the Paris Agreement was negotiated*. Symbolic in two ways, COP26 comes at a time when the UK is both looking for new trading partners post-Brexit, whilst also enjoying the high-profile juncture caused by the recent UK-Australia trade deal. Initially, this deal included progressive multilateral action towards environmental goals (BBC, 2021). However, following negotiations between the two nations, it has been narrowed down to just a trade deal. Returning to COP26, with overarching and specific goals such as ‘securing global net zero by mid-century…’, set against the topical, yet nebulous objective of ‘working together to deliver’ (COP26, 2021), the recent dealings of the UK and Australia will be put under a harsh spotlight. Observing how the UK responds to discourse and criticism concerning these goals, will be an important indicator as to whether the Government intends to go beyond lip-service regarding trade and climate alignment, especially when considering the important Sino-British opportunities which lie on the immediate horizon.
Britain has long been deeply embedded in China’s political sphere. From the independent-colonial enterprises of the East India Trading Company to the collective diplomatic turmoil caused by the British, German, Russian, French and Japanese forced-takeover of territory along the Chinese coast in the 18th-19th century, Britain has typically played a disruptive role. Clearly, 21st century Britain has developed an increasingly sophisticated grasp on interdependence; whether through choice or acculturation, it has evolved from its 18th century position. This is reflected in the fact that China is now the UK’s second largest non-EU trading partner (Casey, 2021). It remains to be seen whether this reciprocity will be further developed into environmental action - especially since China has increased its CO2 emissions per capita by 173% between 2000 and 2018, whilst, during the same period, Britain has reduced its own by 43% (World Resource Institute, 2018). These changes, however, are not entirely representative of bullish or conscientious governmental action, nor do they tell the whole story of societal progress in either country. During this same period, China increased its GDP per capita from $959 to $10,500 (+995%) (World Bank, 2020), simultaneously lifting 100 million people out of poverty between 2013-20 (Goodman, 2021). The UK, on the other hand, only increased its GDP per capita by 43% (World Bank, 2020), in tandem shifting almost all manufacturing to China and thus nurturing a trade deficit from around -1% in 2000 into a towering 51% in 2020 (Ward, 2017, Casey, 2021). Of course, China is in the midst of its transition between intense industrialization and developing its middle-class, whilst the UK is in a stabilizing period of its economic development. Yet, these figures paint an interesting picture of the current position of these two nations and their ambitions for the future, whilst also alluding to the possibility of collaboration along shared goals. In some sectors, this has already happened and has manifest into policy initiatives that have had an overwhelmingly positive impact. One such example is offshore wind.
Turning to the policy initiatives outlined by the UK and Chinese Governments, there is significant overlap in prior investment and future objectives between both countries - leaving a rich source of knowledge, resources and diplomatic opportunities to be mined. A case study which illustrates the potential benefits of this collaboration is the development of offshore wind energy. Since 2013, the UK and China have moved from a Memorandum of Understanding (British Embassy Beijing, 2013) to an Industry Advisory Group established in 2015 (IAG, 2021). This has subsequently paved the way for rapid development in both nations. To date, the UK boasts an impressive 28.9% of global offshore wind turbine capacity, with China coming in close second at 28.3%, leapfrogging Germany in a report published by the WFO in August this year (GWEC, 2021). China is also expected to surpass the UK, with the installation of six times the amount of turbines than were installed in the UK in 2020 (GWEC, 2021). The bilateral advisory group continues to drive progress in this area, meeting as recently as August in Jinan, Shandong province, for their 7th Annual Conference to share “latest updates on respective markets, discuss areas for closer commercial collaboration and present on key aspects critical to future industry growth” (IAG, 2021). It can be expected that the UK and China will, if they haven’t already, look to align on further shared initiatives such as green public transport, greener buildings and protecting the natural environment (UK Parliament, 2021).
Returning to the words of Zheng Zeguang and considering the charged public response to climate goals being dropped from the UK-Australia trade, it is easy to see the wealth of opportunity for bilateral collaboration centered on trade and the climate as a fixed dual package, should the UK and China want to pursue such a path. Offshore wind is but one example, which though still yet to be fully capitalised upon, is well on its way to becoming a cornerstone of shared focus and care. It is now up to both Governments to “foster a sensible strategic understanding of each other” (Chinese Embassy, 2021) in order to work towards a profitable and sustainable future.
*Only 2 countries, Morocco and The Gambia, are compatible with the 1.5 degree Paris Agreement target, with 6 being almost sufficient.
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